Kim Thorsen, Deputy Assistant Secretary
Public Safety, Resource Protection, and Emergency Services
Department of the Interior
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Preparedness for the 2013 Fire Season
June 4, 2013
Chairman Wyden, Ranking Member Murkowski, and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on Department of the Interior's readiness for the 2013 wildland fire season. The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), along with the Forest Service within U.S. Department of Agriculture, is prepared for the 2013 wildland fire season with our available resources.
2012 Wildfire Season
The 2012 wildfire season was an active year.The fire season was especially notable because about 9.3 million acres burned across the United States of which 4.4 million acres were on DOI lands.It was one of the largest fire seasons in terms of annual acreage burned, based on the reporting of fire statistics from 1960 to present. Fifty-one fires exceeded 40,000 acres in 2012, ten more than in 2011.Over 4,200 structures were reported destroyed by wildfires, including over 2,200 residences, nearly 2,000 outbuildings, and approximately 70 commercial structures. This is well above the annual average of 1,400 residences, 1,300 outbuildings, and 50 commercial structures (data from 1999 through 2012, NICC).
More than twenty percent of the United States (510 million acres) is managed or held in trust by the Department's bureaus with fire management responsibilities. Those lands stretch from Florida to Alaska, from Maine to California. DOI has achieved a high success rate in suppressing fires during the initial attack stage, which helps control cost.
2013 Fire Season
We are expecting the 2013 fire season to be similar to last year's. The National Wildfire Potential Outlook for the period of June through August predicts above-normal fire potential for June over much of California and Oregon, south central Washington, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and southern Utah and Colorado. These above-normal conditions will remain in California, Oregon and Washington through July and August, while also expanding into central Idaho and southwestern Montana.
Wildland fire behavior and the Department's response are influenced by complex environmental and social factors as discussed in the 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR), the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, and other strategic foundational documents used to guide the Wildland Fire Management program. The impacts of climate change, cumulative drought effects, increasing risk in and around communities, and escalating emergency response costs continue to impact wildland fire management and wildfire response operations.Through the end of May the Nation has experienced nearly 18,000 fires on just over 240,000 acres mainly in the East, South, and Southwestern geographic areas where fire season typically begins early in the year. Although these numbers are less than the ten year average, due to wet conditions in the East and South, we expect normal to above normal fire conditions throughout the West this year. Conditions in California up through Oregon and Washington are expected to be above normal as the summer progresses.
Effects of Sequestration
Much like other Departments across the federal government, programs within Interior have felt the impact from sequestration.As we developed our sequestration implementation plan, we made every effort to prioritize preparedness for the upcoming fire season and to absorb the cuts in a way that would not compromise our ability to respond to fires this season. Therefore, we focused cuts to the wildland fire management program in areas such as travel, training, contracted services, and operating supplies first.Overall, the sequestration resulted in a $37.5 million cut to Interior's fire program and resulted in a reduction of approximately 7 percent of FTE the Department's firefighter seasonal workforce, with reduced lengths of employment for those hired.
The long-term impacts of sequestration are impossible to avoid. We have had to make difficult choices that will reduce our overall capacity such as not filling permanent staff vacancies, reducing seasonal firefighter employment periods, and reducing the number of hazardous fuels crews.In addition, other reductions in seasonal hiring across Interior will have a residual impact on the overall numbers of firefighters available for dispatch, since many of these hires, while being non-fire positions, are "red-carded" or trained to fight fire when needed.
Expected Available Fire Resources
Among its bureaus, the Department will deploy just over 3,400 firefighters, including 135 smokejumpers, 17 Type-1 crews; 750 engines; more than 200 other pieces of heavy equipment (dozers, tenders, etc.); and about 1,300 support personnel (incident management teams, dispatchers, fire cache, etc.); totaling nearly 5,000 personnel.
In aviation, this year, Interior has 27 single-engine airtankers or SEATS on exclusive use contracts --double the number we have had in the past, and an additional 42 on call-when-needed contracts.The Department made a conscious decision to double the number of SEATs on exclusive use contracts in order to be prepared for the 2013 season and to reduce the overall costs to the program.SEATs are a good fit for the types of fires that the Interior agencies experience, which usually burn at lower elevations, in sparser fuels, on flatter terrain.We also have small and large helicopters and water scoopers available.We will utilize Forest Service contracted heavy airtankers and, if necessary, Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) aircraft from the Military.Agreements are in place to acquire supplemental aircraft from our state and international partners, if necessary.
Department of Defense Assistance
Over the past year, officials from the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture have worked with officials from Northern Command (NorthCom), in Colorado, to develop a new approach for obtaining support from the Department of Defense (DoD) should their assistance be needed during the 2013 fire season and into the future.
Previously, the DoD provided ground forces configured as battalions--550 soldiers each.Future requests for support will now include approximately ten 20-person crews from regionally based installations, within a reasonable distance from the incident.This ability will provide flexibility in the use of DoD resources as well as providing the anticipated numbers needed based on historical use. Our staffs are in the process of developing options for training that will include a smaller training cadre and include qualified DoD personnel.An Incident Awareness Assessment is also being conducted to identify potential gaps and areas where DoD may be able to provide specialized and/or surge capability in imagery products for use on wildfire incidents.
Fiscal Year 2014 Budget
The President's FY 2014 budget proposes a total of $776.9 million to support the fire preparedness, suppression, fuels reduction, and burned area rehabilitation needs of the Department. The budget fully funds the inflation-adjusted 10-year average of suppression expenditures of $377.9 million, with the funding split between $285.9 million in the regular suppression account and $92.0 million in the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement (FLAME) Fund. This represents a program increase of $205.1 million over the 2012 enacted level, because the full 10-year average was not appropriated in 2012 and the program relied on available balances from prior years.Consistent with the FLAME Act, the regular suppression account will fund the initial attack and predictable firefighting costs, while the FLAME Fund will fund the costs of large, catastrophic-type fires and also serve as a reserve when funds available in the regular suppression account are exhausted.While the budget provides funding to cover anticipated preparedness and suppression needs, the Department recognizes the need to invest not just in firefighting related activities, but also hazardous fuels reduction, community assistance, and rehabilitation of burned areas. Interior has made significant improvements to management information tools to provide program leadership information on determining where funds may best be directed.The Department will continue to pursue efficiencies and reforms that reduce project cost, increase performance,ensure the greatest value from invested resources, all while strengthening the accountability and transparency of the way in which taxpayer dollars are being spent.
Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program
The 2014 budget requests $95.9 million for the Department's Hazardous Fuels Reduction (HFR) program, a reduction of $88.9 million from 2012 and $49.4 million from 2013. The increase in complexity and intensity of fires over the last ten years presents enormous budgetary challenges for the wildland fire program.With today's fiscal climate, and competition for limited resources, we are being asked to make tough choices.The reduction to the fuels budget is one of those tough choices.This presents an opportunity to re-evaluate and recalibrate the focus of the HFR program to align and support the direction in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy.Affirming a commitment to the intergovernmental goals of the Cohesive Strategy, HFR program activities will be planned and implemented to mitigate risks posed by wildfire.The program uses a risk-based prioritization process to ensure activities are implemented in the areas of greatest risk from wildfire, and will foster closer alignment and integration of the program into the bureaus' broader natural resource management programs.To encourage this, the 2014 program includes $2 million to conduct additional research on the effectiveness of hazardous fuels treatments.As a result, the Department will take a serious look at how we can make the most difference on the ground with what we have.The program will continue to focus fuels reduction on the highest priority projects in the highest priority areas resulting in the mitigation of risks to communities and their values.
The realities of today's federal funding challenges, such as the reduction to the hazardous fuels program, highlights the importance of working together across landscapes, and with our partners to achieve our goals.
The federal government wildland fire agencies are working with tribal, state, and local government partners to prevent and reduce the effects of large, unwanted fires through preparedness activities like risk assessment, prevention and mitigation efforts, mutual aid agreements, firefighter training, acquisition of equipment and aircraft, and dispatching; community assistance and hazardous fuels reduction.These actions demonstrate Interior's continued commitment to the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (restore and maintain resilient landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and response to wildfire).
Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy
The Department will also continue to take full advantage of the current Implementation Guidelines for the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy. Our unwavering commitment to firefighter and public safety in managing wildfire is the foundation of the wildland fire management program within each DOI bureau. We will continue to respond quickly and effectively to control unwanted wildland fires. Initial action on human-caused wildfire will continue to suppress the wildfire at the lowest risk to firefighter and public safety. When appropriate, we will also allow fire managers to manage a wildfire for multiple objectives and increase managers' flexibility to respond to changing incident conditions and firefighting capability, while strengthening strategic and tactical decision implementation supporting public safety and resource management objectives.
Actions by wildland fire managers will be supported by the best available science and decision support systems such as the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS).These tools afford our wildland fire managers an enhanced ability to analyze wildfire conditions and develop risk informed strategies and tactics, which result in the reduced exposure to unnecessary risk during a sequester-impacted wildfire season.
Long-Term Programmatic Challenges
There are several longer-term programmatic challenges facing the Department's wildland fire management program including the need to re-align the overall program to better integrate with land and resource management activities We must continue to develop strategies to deal with the long-term effects of declining budgets, the changing climate, evolving workforce, and the continued need to develop technologies and decision support tools to better inform our wildland fire managers of the future.
The Department of the Interior is prepared to meet the wildland firefighting challenges of today and tomorrow with the most efficient use of its available resources. DOI will maintain operational capabilities and continue to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the wildland fire management programs.These efforts are coupled with other strategic efforts and operational protocols to improve oversight and use of the latest research and technology in order to ensure wildland fire management resources are appropriately focused. Specific actions include:
·Continued reduction of hazardous fuels in priority areas, where there is the greatest opportunity to reduce the risk of severe wildfires;
·Continued improvement in decision-making on wildland fires by leveraging the Wildland Fire Decision Support System's capabilities to predict what may happen during a wildfire, to safeguard lives, protect communities, and enhance natural resource ecosystem health;
·Continued enhancement to wildfire response that comes from efficient use of national shared resources, pre-positioning of firefighting resources, and improvements in aviation management;
·Continued review of wildfire incidents to apply lessons learned and best practices to policy and operations; and
·Continued strategic planning in collaboration with the Forest Service and our tribal, state, and local government partners to develop meaningful performance measures and implementation plans to address the challenges posed by wildfires in the nation.
The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) work collaboratively in all aspects of wildland fire management, along with our other federal, tribal, state and local partners. Together, with all our available resources, we will provide a safe, effective wildland fire management program. We will continue to improve effectiveness, cost efficiency, safety, and community and resource protection with all our available resources.
This concludes my statement. Thank you for your interest in the Department's wildland fire management program and for the opportunity to testify before this Committee. I welcome any questions you may have and appreciate your continued support.